Today we started our trek back to New Jersey to Nebraska. After some time fishing with my dad this morning, we got as far down the road as Iowa City. This university town has been a perfect place to stop. People take COVID seriously and we had an amazing meal outdoors. College towns are also one of the few places in America designed to be walkable, so it felt good to stretch our feet after six hours in the car.
Iowa City is definitively the Midwest. Just two days ago we were in Valentine, Nebraska, which is definitively the West. My hometown of Hastings lies somewhere in-between, a place I always thought of as Midwestern, but now feels geographically liminal. As a child I thought the West didn't begin until North Platte, 150 miles west. My view was confirmed in high school when I read On the Road and Kerouac (through the character of Sal) described the sudden change in the landscape as farms disappeared and the range opened up. To him the transition was melancholy:
"Tall sullen men watched us go by from false-front buildings; the main street was lined with square box houses. There were immense vistas of the plains beyond every sad street. I felt something different in the air in North Platte, I didn't know what it was. In five minutes I did....'What in the hell is this?' I cried out to Slim. 'This is the beginning of the rangelands, boy. Hand me another drink.'"
People may mock Kerouac's style but this is pretty much spot on. In this trip to the West, as in others, I like Kerouac was struck by its hardness and precariousness. Even my hometown, which puts on airs more than pure West towns, feels like a hard prairie wind could just blow it off of the map. On that broad flat plain under that impossibly big sky you feel like you are being smashed by nature's hammer and anvil. The horribly unpredictable and savage weather only compounds that feeling. I had nightmares growing up about the so-called "Children's Blizzard" in the late 1800s when an unexpected winter storm hit after a warm morning and children were stranded in their one room schoolhouses or froze to death, snowblind, trying to get home. There's a story of two girls at that time near Thedford who went out playing and lost their bearings. One survived, the other died after walking 75 miles. The West is a pitiless place.
This trip a contrast hit me harder than ever: the West has the nation's most beautiful landscapes and its most atrociously ugly built environment. In the land of majestic mountains, mighty rivers, and breathtaking vistas so many buildings look like they are falling apart. The rest are practical to the point of grotesque. We ate at a metal-sided restaurant one evening in Valentine that felt like a glorified garage. The next night we ate at the best steakhouse in the area, a pricey place nonetheless located in a strip mall with an interior with all the charm of an airplane hanger. The other patrons were dressed like they just rolled out of bed, and this was what passed for fancy eating.
I think this awful built environment is a natural response to living in a place where nature is so powerful and fearsome that any human attempt to alter the landscape seems doomed to failure. No need to bother building nice things, they'll just get blown away. At other times it's a sign of the spiritual failure of the imperialist mission in the far West undertaken by the United States after the Civil War. The civilizers may have ravaged the original inhabitants and taken their land, but couldn't really do much with it. The people they killed and dispossessed had built something more sustainable and were treated with miserable cruelty in response. The Great Plains still feels like a place that has not been fully "settled." Everything is rough-hewn, not built to last. The food is the worst in the country: bland and lacking in variety. People still seem to eat merely to fill the need for calories, reflected a practical place stripped of any higher strivings apart from day to day survival.
Be that as it may, I still love my Plains homeland. When our car headed west out of Iowa and broke free of the Omaha suburbs the immense sky lifted my heart. Floating down the Niobrara River I felt peace like I hadn't in a long time. Driving through the Sandhills I fell into a kind of mystic trance. The ugly dumpiness of the towns can't erase the sublime beauty of what surrounds them. Can't wait to go back.